The world we live in is changing at a higher rate of speed every single day. Cars are driving themselves, wars are being waged exclusively in cyberspace, Donald Trump is running for President, and could conceivably win. Things are getting weird, and, given the current trajectory, it looks like they’re only going to get weirder. But one of the hands-down strangest—and probably most terrifying—technological developments over the last decade is the widespread use of drone technology.
The government uses them (and has been using them for over a decade) to patrol our skies and “keep us safe” from things like terrorism and foreign enemies, and they’re even using drones at an alarming rate to attack and kill our enemies abroad. Hobbyists all over the country are using them to perform nimble aerial maneuvers, spy on their neighbors, and have fun in their local parks. Hollywood production companies and corporate America are in on the fun, too.
It’s not the least bit unreasonable to say that drones are affecting almost every aspect of our day-to-day lives. But there’s so much more to this story than what meets the eye.
When it comes to U.S. soil, drones are becoming more and more prevalent in our everyday lives, and many of us don’t even know it. Our federal government actively uses drones for surveillance and research and development missions.
The FBI has come clean about their use of drones on U.S. soil for non-military surveillance missions for over a decade. They even made a small list of highlighted incidences of domestic military drone use on public and federal lands. Many of the events on the list indicate the drones were used to assist with things like search and rescue missions and to help in emergency natural disaster situations.
Unfortunately, there’s no real way of telling how in-depth our government’s use of drones is. An unnamed law enforcement official told CNN in 2012—some time before drone use became increasingly prevalent in domestic use—that the government had used drones on American soil roughly a dozen times, but the list provided by the FBI only listed nine of the dozen or so events. In that very CNN story, a letter written to Sen. Rand Paul is referenced, where the FBI confesses to using drones in the well-reported Alabama hostage situation involving Jimmy Lee Dykes.
In 2013, it was heavily speculated—but never confirmed—that the government was using drones to track Christopher Dorner, a disgruntled former LAPD officer who went on a shooting rampage. After an 11-day manhunt, Dorner was eventually cornered and killed at a cabin near Big Bear Lake, California. Former FBI Director Robert Mueller confirmed the information in a 2013 Congressional oversight hearing, where he curtly said, “[They’re] very seldom used and generally used in a particular incident where you need the capability.” That was that.
If you visit the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) website on “Unmanned Aircraft Systems”—a fancy phrase for drones—it explicitly states that they can’t simply do whatever they want with the technology. In order for drones to operate, “the Department of Defense is required to obtain a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration.”
Phew. Sounds like we’re all safe, right? Well, not quite. The DoD website also confirms that there are over 11,000 drones in service “in support of domestic training events and overseas contingency missions” in the U.S. just last week, Edward Snowden posted a blog post announcing the U.S.’s large interest in deploying solar-powered surveillance drones that could stay in the sky for weeks, and surgically follow citizens’ every moves.
Snowden compared the process to reducing our collective dignity to something like “tagged animals.”
Drones can “monitor, unblinkingly, the emanations of the difference network addresses of every laptop, smartphone, and iPod,” he explains. “You know not just where a particular device is in what city, but what apartment each device lives in, where it goes at any particular time and by what route.” And that’s downright horrifying.
Imagine living in a world where the skies are filled with clouds, birds and flying little robots with packages strapped to their bellies; a world where you can order a bottle of shampoo from the Internet and have it delivered straight to your door by a drone in a half hour or less. A world where the skies are as regulated, taxed and equitable as primetime city real estate. The truth is, that world, which seemed so futuristic just 15 or 20 years ago, appears just beyond our grasp right now, and only temporarily.
Most people have at least heard about Amazon’s and Google’s pissing match over who’s going to be the first to give the world practical drone delivery. Amazon’s drone delivery system, aptly titled “Amazon Prime Air,” shows a lot of promise. The Amazon drones are sleek, if a little boring, and appear in preview footage as boxy and quite square, with a blue, gold, and white paint job. It’s not the most visually impressive tech we’ve seen, but it’s game-changing, nonetheless. Amazon is charging full speed ahead with its program, announcing just this week the opening of a new development center in Austria.
Paul Misener, VP for Global Innovation Policy and Communications at Amazon, wrote in a post on the Amazon blog last week that safety has, and will continue to be, the number one priority for Amazon. “Like smart animals, the drones must know when they are getting into trouble, and avoid colliding with things, without a human intervening. They must be independent and safe,” he said.
On the other side of the coin is Google and its Project Wing drone delivery service. In a big breakthrough last month, the company was awarded a patent that outlines a method for delivering packages to people solely through the use of highly intelligent drones. The plans apparently included verbal cues and warnings from the drones themselves, cheery messages upon delivery and ’80s sci fi-style warning lights that change color when it’s safe to grab your package.
Back in November, Google’s lead man on Project Wing, David Vos, said Google fully anticipated having a real-deal commercial drone delivery system up and running by 2017—which, to us, seems a little far-fetched.
Of course, Google and Amazon aren’t the only players in the commercial drone game. UPS and Zipline are partnering to bring vaccines and other critical medical supplies to the people of Rwanda. According to a report from Reuters, the service will provide 12 to 15 drones for the operation.
Zipline’s Chief Executive Keller Rinaudo said in a press conference that the first drop is expected to occur in late July or August, and that they intend on targeting most of the blood transfusing facilities in the entire western half of the country. “By the end of 2017, we can be covering the entire country of Rwanda,” he said.
This has been Part One of a two-part series on the impact of drone technology. Join us next week for Part Two, where we explore the recreational use of drones, the use of drones overseas and the future of this exciting technology.
Can’t wait for more drone content? Check out our round up of Five of the Best Drones Available.